Diana Lin in rehearsals. Photo: Charlie Kinross
Diana Lin in rehearsals. Photo: Charlie Kinross

Torch the Place

Career encore

Diana Lin returns in dramatic style after a 20-year hiatus from stage and screen.

By Sarah Corridon

Diana Lin trained at China’s most exclusive theatre school and went on to become one of the nation’s leading stars in the late 1980s. She was dubbed the ‘Asian Meryl Streep’ and graced the covers of countless glossy magazines. But at the start of the 90s, she caught a plane to Australia to ‘have a look’.

Not long after she met her husband, and the role she would accept for the next two decades revolved around the principal parts of wife, mother and co-business owner of a fashion company. That was over 25 years ago. Now, the 55-year-old Gold Coast resident is back to reignite her first love: acting.

When Lin was 14 years old living with her family in China’s 10th largest city, Harbin, she successfully auditioned for the Chinese Beijing Opera Company. She spent five years training to become a professional opera singer before ‘chucking a sickie to catch an overnight train to Shanghai and audition for Shanghai Theatre Academy, China’s leading performing arts university. Back at Chinese Beijing Opera, Lin trained from 6am to 6pm, six days a week. She remembers lying in bed each night wishing she wouldn’t fall asleep, knowing that when she’d wake, she would have twelve more hours of training. ‘It was very, very hard. Like being in the army,’ she says. ‘But you also knew it was the right thing to do, because everyday you would improve your skills.’

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Diana Lin and 'The Farewell' director Lulu Wang at the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival Closing Night Gala, the film's Australian Premiere. Photo: Zan Wimberley.

Auditioning for Shanghai Theatre Academy was like auditioning for American Idol, Lin remembers. ‘There were tens of thousands of kids and only a handful of places.’ Lin was among the very few selected. She remembers her limbs being measured in both length and circumference during one of her many auditions for a coveted place in the program.

Lin was fluent in dance, music, song, acting and martial arts. ‘You want to be the best,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘Not just good or great, but the best.’ And to be the best, you have to put the work in. In her fourth year of study, as her graduation project she played 15 different women in a single courtroom drama. Lin’s teachers recognised her standout talent and constantly tested her ability to diversify. In her final year, she was chosen for a leading role in a film, and her life on the big screen catapulted into action. Perhaps it was the sudden flood of fame Lin experienced, or the approximately 10 years of training that preceded it, but after just six years of professional acting work, Lin decided it was time for a change.


When she landed in Sydney in 1990, she found a job at a clothing business and worked on the factory floor as part of the assembly line. Her celebrity friends in China couldn’t believe she would voluntarily accept this modest job. Especially when endless well-paid and highly respected acting roles were waiting for the star back home. Lin, however, became determined to learn English and soon found a network of performing artists to help her launch her Australian career. She befriended Tony Ayres – one of the country’s pre-eminent TV writers – on the set of Under the Skin, which collected the prize for Best Mini-Series at the 1994 AFI Awards.


‘My teachers said, “We worked so hard to train you. We thought you had the most potential.” I felt so guilty. I actually cried because I realised I had let my teachers down, and I felt like I’d let my country down, because uni is free in China. And so many students would have killed for a place in that course.’


The biggest difference between working as an actor in China versus Australia, Lin recalls, was that in China, people sent her scripts. ‘When I first arrived, I thought, “What is this? I don’t audition”,’ she says, laughing. It soon became apparent that the roles on offer in Australian film and TV in the 90s were few and far between. There was little more than the occasional commercial, or bit part with a character named ‘Asian Girl’. ‘It was like, if you’re really in love with someone, and they’re not available, sometimes it’s easier to leave them rather than fight for it to be different.’ After thousands of 5am wake-up calls and years and years of investment in her craft, Lin decided to walk away from what she loved most and focus her efforts on her family and new business with her husband in clothing wholesaling, retailing and importing. ‘I had responsibilities,’ she says. ‘So I put my son first and was there for him to grow up. But for 20 years, I [didn’t act].’

It wasn’t until she returned to Shanghai for her 30-year reunion with the graduating class of Shanghai Theatre Academy that she learnt how disappointed her teachers had been in her stalled career. ‘My teachers said, “We worked so hard to train you. We thought you had the most potential.” I felt so guilty. I actually cried because I realised I had let my teachers down, and I felt like I’d let my country down, because uni is free in China. And so many students would have killed for a place in that course.’


When Lin flew back over the South China Sea she asked herself what she really wanted. ‘I thought, “Life is short. What do I want and what do I not want?” My son is grown now. I’ve fulfilled my responsibilities to my family and I’ve come to the age where I can do what I want.’ When Lin touched down on Australian soil, she called her old friend Tony Ayres after two decades of no contact and said, ‘I’m back.’ Ayres was working as an Executive Producer on Benjamin Law’s The Family Law and quickly cast Lin as Aunt Maisy in the SBS comedy. Almost immediately, she was signed to an agent and auditioning for parts in Hollywood blockbusters.

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Diana Lin (right) in a scene from 'The Farewell'. Photo: Roadshow Films

Soon Lin was cast alongside actor and rapper Awkwafina in the American comedy-drama The Farewell. Premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the film – and Lin's performance – garnered public and critical acclaim, and was picked up for instant worldwide distribution. In the wake of The Farewell’s success, Lin quickly signed to shoot a short film in New York and her agent warned her the jobs in America could come in thick and fast, and to more or less brace herself.

At the same time, a script for a play in Melbourne had come across her radar. Benjamin Law’s debut stage dramedy, Torch the Place, represented the kind of opportunity Lin had begged for when she first moved to Australia. The role was deep and substantial, and required the use of skills she spent over a decade perfecting in her homeland. ‘I’m just so excited to take on this character,’ she says. ‘I’m planning on putting every ounce of my effort into it. I want people to really see her, and know her, and feel her pain, as well as being able to laugh alongside her. Ultimately, I want the audience to fall deeply in love with her.’

Torch the Place is on at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio, from 8 February–21 March.
Presented as part of AsiaTOPA 2020

Published on 10 January 2020

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